This artist sculpts miniature Indian food

Shilpa Mitha can make a dosa with her eyes closed. Ask for one and the former sound engineer will knead the dough, roll it out until its paper thin, and then fold it up. This dosa is then placed on a banana leaf and surrounded by chutneys, sambhar, and pickle.

This South Indian breakfast plate looks delicious, but it cannot be eaten. The reason? Mitha makes food miniatures using clay. “I cannot cook otherwise, but I can make your favorite dishes using clay,” says Mitha, 30.

Her food stays true to form—they are exact replicas of the original dish, from the ingredients to the plating. Her dosas are thin and have lightly browned edges and a hollow center. “This is a bestseller. Everyone loves a good dosa,” she says. The coconut chutney is dotted with mustard seeds, and the sambhar (stew) has drumsticks and carrots peeking out.

dosa and idli
Dosas and idlis

Mitha’s sells her miniature dishes under the name Sueño Souvenir. Her menu includes fried chicken, fried fish, a whole roast turkey with veggies, pizzas, burgers, doughnuts, macaroons, brownies, and cake. But it is her Indian food, particularly the south Indian fare, that gets her the most accolades: karimeen pollichathu (a Keralite-style fish dish baked in a banana leaf); gajar ka halwa (carrot pudding); vada pav (spicy, potato-filled deep fried dumplings served inside bread); and much more.

A Thanksgiving meal.

Her miniatures, just like food at her home, are prepared fresh. “Making biryani takes me the longest. I have to roll one grain at a time. Then, there’s the fact that certain dishes like biryani, dals, and even pappad, vary from one region to the next,” she says. She seeks references from recipes, online cooking shows, and photos.

Huxtaburger and fries
Burger and fries.

Mitha’s journey into food miniatures began because of a burger. A fan of paper quilling, she tried and failed to make a paper burger earring. “My mum [then] taught me how to make a burger using modelling clay,” she says. It took them ten minutes, and when Mitha shared it with friends, they all wanted their own. Intrigued by the demand, she went online and discovered a whole world of miniature food. “I wasn’t aware that people actually made miniature, and very realistic, food to put in the kitchens of their dollhouses,” Mitha says. “We had dolls at home, and for Golu [a festive display of dolls] we would make mini meals for them. But they never were this realistic.” 

“In paintings, food is restricted to baskets of fruits or elaborate meals. Where is the common stuff you eat?” she says.

She didn’t see people making Indian food miniatures, so decided to give it a try. Thus began her self-taught journey into cooking food with clay, and turning them into magnets and pendants. She learned the basics of clay modelling from her mother and took four years to perfect her technique and the proportions, textures, and colors. Mitha had quit her job to focus on her hobbies, and she soon found she could make food miniatures a profession.

Today, her clay kitchen contains rollers, cookie cutters, a pointed needle-like tool, and paint. Mitha works with air-dry clay, which doesn’t have to be baked and takes from one to five days to dry. She prefers mixing colors into the clay rather than painting them after, which she believes makes the figurines look artificial. The final item gets a coat of varnish, which adds gloss and an oily sheen to certain oil-based dishes. The constant rolling of clay means Mitha struggles with muscles issues and has to take breaks for physiotherapy sessions.

The miniatures cost between Rs 450 and Rs 1000. Despite the breaks, and subsequent longer delivery time, the demand for her food miniatures is high: She gets an average of 20 messages and requests daily.

Mitha doesn’t publicize her work, but word of mouth and press appearances help her get customers. She came into the international spotlight for replicating Masterchef Australia dishes, including Heston Blumenthal’s Botrytis Cinerea, Charlie Sartori’s chocolate sponge cake with raspberry jam, and Shannon Bennett’s chocolate peanut bar.

Shannon Bennett - chocolate peanut bar
Shannon Bennet’s chocolate peanut bar from Masterchef Australia. Photo courtesy: Shilpa Mitha

“I just want to cook good food and do something different with my life,” she says. Just don’t try to eat her cooking.

[This story appeared in Gastro Obscura in January 2018]


Fish tales: Fresh Catch at Mahim 

Once upon a time, a young girl in Mumbai was told of a seafood place that could satiate her cravings for fish. She went to Fresh Catch in Mahim and fell in love with the Crab Butter Garlic, Surmai Fry and Seafood Pulao, and the pink pelican at the entrance. Over the years, that girl has made many more visits and stuck to her favourite dishes, despite the increased prices. This week, she went back again. 

This time, it wasn’t hunger that drove me to Fresh Catch, but work (my story on Mahim’s other seafood place, Saibeni Gomantak). It turned out to be a delicious homecoming. 

The pelican was still there, the music was the same – instrumental versions of 80s and 90s pop music, the patterned tablecloth, the photos of seaside places and fishing nets on the wall, a section dedicated to the many celebrities who’ve visited the place and the big ugly pelican out front…nothing had changed.

The place was surprisingly empty on a weekday; they do their best business at lunch

The food, like always, surprised and comforted. Sol Kadhi (Rs 80) made for a frothy, watery start. Then came the Prawns Sukka (Rs 380) and we were hooked. It was worth its weight in the oil it was covered in, a mildly spicy onion and tomato gravy covering crunchy, juicy prawns. Bangda Huggay (Rs 350 for two pieces) reminded us of the Goan rechead bangda – fresh mackeral slit and stuffed with a spicy masala. Good though it was, in paled in comparison to the star of the evening, Calamari Dry (425) – oysters cooked till soft served up in a thin, chilli-based curry, which we mopped up with Neer Dosa (Rs 90).

The favourites were the biggest letdowns. The Crab Meat Butter Garlic (725) came steaming on a banana leaf, with a thick layer of crunchy fried garlic on top. The crab could’ve done with more seasoning because on its own, it couldn’t hold the dish. The prawn counterpart fared better. The Seafood Pulao (435) was stuffed with steamed prawns, crab meat and squid and had a khichdi-like consistency.

Crab Meat in Butter Garlic is a Fresh Catch staple

Take My Breath Away’s instrumental version filled the empty room providing adequate accompaniment to the dessert, Caramel Custard (Rs 160) – a creamy, smooth custard with just the right quiver, dressed with a dark sweet caramel.

On my way out, I gave a knowing nod to the pelican. It felt apt since I now knew what it meant to be stuffed to the gills with fish.  

Fresh Catch is located at Lt Kotnis Marg, near Fire Brigade, off LJ Road; open from 12 pm to 3.30 pm, 7.30 pm to 11.30 pm (Mondays closed); call 30151696

Bribes, cats and Irani chai

“This is a bribe so that you come back,” says the old man while handing over a Mango Bite to a smiling girl. He places one in her sister’s outstretched hand before reaching into a glass jar to remove a few more. “These are so that you come back after that. Keep coming back so that one day, this uncle can get rich and buy a Porsche. I can then take your family for a ride in it.”

Bribing (or witnessing someone do it) has never been this much fun. 

Mansoor Showghi Yezdi is a filmmaker, better known for his award-winning documentary Cafe Irani Chai (find them, here). This last year, he has been moonlighting as the owner of the city’s newest Irani café, simply titled Cafe Irani Chaii, bribing customers with sweets from the many jars on the counter.

Cafe Irani Chaii doesn’t really need the owner to bribe you to return. The food is good enough. On the menu is Irani chai, bun/ brun maska, kheema pavakuri, white biryani, kheema, toast and eggs (fried, omelette or scrambled), mutton paya and Pallonji’s cold drinks. 

Mutton Kheema (half for Rs 110) served with hot pav is the perfect meal

At a time when others are opening delivery services, molecular gastronomy ice-cream parlours, and other fine dining establishments, Yezdi decided to stick to his roots (including putting up old pictures of his family tree). 

Yezdi may be the owner but that doesn’t stop him from coming over to our table repeatedly to ask us about the food or to ‘forgive him if there’s anything wrong’. If you show an inclination to talk, he will sit down and point out how his family eats food that’s cooked in the kitchen (he takes a parcel home every night), or show you wooden chairs that were made in 1930 and got from Poland or how customers consider his akuri the best in the city. He will share stories of how his grandfather, Haji Mohammed Showghi Yezdi, sold Irani chai on the streets of Apollo Bunder when he first arrived here in the 1890s. Nudge him a bit and he will show you his pride – a 30 year old traditional Persian samovar – and explain how to make kadak Irani chai in it.

cafe ic 1.jpg
You can try Irani chai, black chai and green chai…just be prepared to wait

 If you like cats, this place has them swarming around. Be careful though –they’re distracting and very demanding.

cafe ic 3.jpg
Your bill? A two-minute head scratch!

Cafe Irani Chaii is located at Rosary Building, Geeta Nagar, New Dinkar Co Operative Housing Society, opposite Paramount, Mahim; open from 7 am to 11 pm; they also do delivery.